Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The story of Albert Pierrepoint, Britain's most prolific executioner, was initially to have been titled The Last Hangman, despite being factually incorrect. His name lingers in the public memory, not because he was the last, but because, as protests against capital punishment developed in the Forties and Fifties, he inadvertently became a public figure, as the face of state-sanctioned death. That this should happen to such an intensely private man is itself part of the tragedy.

Though his views on capital punishment shifted over the years, Pierrepoint believed that death should be a private affair. Having inherited the trade from his father, he took a pride in his skills, like any working man, but his sense of duty was largely directed toward minimising trauma for the condemned. He justified himself throughout with the belief that capital punishment cleansed these people, enabling them to atone for their sins. It is this belief, brought into savage conflict with the moral complexities of politics, which makes Pierrepoint such a fascinating film.

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Though it is judiciously cast throughout, Timothy Spall is excellent in the central role. After many years of watching him mug his way through stale comedy, it's delightful to see him finally being given a role in which he can exercise his considerable acting abilities. Through him, Pierrepoint is perceived as a fully rounded character, a man who can kill somebody in the morning and settle down to a drink in the pub, with a bit of a singsong, in the evening. He describes his method of coping as dependent upon leaving a part of himself outside when he does his work, but over the course of the film this ability to divide himself declines, faced, as he is, with a series of unanticipated challenges.

Scenes in Germany, where he carries out sentences passed at the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal, are particularly well handled, neatly sidestepping familiar notions of justice and revenge to examine the matter in completely human terms. Ultimately, the film's triumph is that it looks directly and plainly at issues which have been lost in the midst of fractious political debate. It doesn't come down firmly either for, or against, the death penalty. As Pierrepoint says, that's not his job. In making the audience question whether or not he ought to take on such moral responsibility, it creates a palpable sense of unease.

Pierrepoint is a triumph of independent cinema, extremely well made despite its low budget and comparative lack of resources. Though the subject matter could easily have become repetitive, it uses this to its advantage, continually escalating the underlying moral tension and never losing its grip.

Films as brave and intelligent as this are a rare commodity and should not be missed.

Reviewed on: 01 Mar 2006
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The most famous hangman in Britain goes about his business.
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Director: Adrian Shergold

Writer: Jeff Pope

Starring: Timothy Spall, Juliet Stevenson, Eddie Marsan, Cavan Clerkin, James Corden, Joyia Fitch, Clive Francis, Christopher Fulford, Claire Keelan, Ben McKay, Tobias Menzies

Year: 2005

Runtime: 90 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK


Bradford 2009

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